Matt Riddle: 'The independents is my WrestleMania'

Matthew Riddle, left, will be one of the busiest wrestlers in New Orleans over the next three days, and despite none of them happening inside of a WWE ring, Riddle will take part in several of the most highly-anticipated matches of the weekend. Scott Finkelstein / EVOLVE

Matt Riddle, former UFC fighter-turned bro-shouting grappler, isn't wrestling at WrestleMania this year like he dreamed of as a child. Instead, he's wrestling at what feels like every other show taking place this week in New Orleans.

Starting at 3 p.m. CT Thursday, in a match against Japanese wrestling (and MMA) legend Minoru Suzuki at his own event, Matt Riddle's Bloodsport, and ending at Saturday night's Style Battle eight-man tournament, Riddle begins a stretch of nine shows and up to 12 matches in a span of three days.

"Nine to 12 [matches] in three days is a little rough. A little rough," Riddle said in an interview with ESPN. "But I've been training all year. This is for me. The independents is my WrestleMania."

The list of opponent's Riddle has lined up for WrestleMania week spans every type of technique, body type, and personality pro wrestling has to offer. In addition to Suzuki and the one-night tournament, Riddle will face Zack Sabre Jr. at EVOLVE 102, Deonna Purrazzo at Beyond Wrestling's "Lit Up", Jimmy Havoc at Progress Chapter 66, Daisuke Sekimoto at EVOLVE 103, Will Ospreay at WWN's Supershow "Mercury Rising", and just before midnight on Friday at Joey Janela's Spring Break II, Riddle will face none other than former WWE superstar James Ellsworth.

When that last match is put up against all of the other independent standouts, it might seem like something of a joke. But not for Riddle, who enjoys the challenge of adapting to every opponent and pushing himself creatively.

"One of the guys from Game Changer [Wrestling] hit me up and they're like, "Hey, what would you think about wrestling James Ellsworth?' And I was like, 'It's a dream come true,'" Riddle said. "I heard he was back on the indies so we made it happen. I get to wrestle James Ellsworth. It's pretty sweet. You get to have matches like James Ellsworth, where it will be more entertaining, and then you got matches like me against [Minoru Suzuki]. Me against Sabre. Me against Ospreay. I got a couple matches this weekend that I know are gonna be extremely physical and I'm excited because that's my style of wrestling."

"Nine to 12 [matches] in three days is a little rough. A little rough. But I've been training all year. This is for me. The independents is my WrestleMania." Matthew Riddle

There's a reason why Riddle is the most sought after wrestler during the most profitable week of the year in wrestling -- the 32-year old brawler is one of the biggest, if not the biggest prospect in wrestling right now outside of the WWE.

Riddle has garnered comparisons to Kurt Angle because of his athletic background and seamless transition into professional wrestling. His appearance -- with his long blonde hair and sculpted frame -- is the kind of look one would imagine Vince McMahon would faun over. His free-spirited demeanor, punctuated by a can't-miss smile, is the perfect companion to his ultra-aggressive in-ring style. Promotions trust Riddle to work with just about anyone and produce a highly-anticipated match that delivers.

Riddle's hyperactive wrestling schedule stands in stark contrast to his former life as a UFC fighter.

Fighting at 170 pounds and earning the nickname "Deep Waters", Riddle fought in the UFC for five years after competing on Season 7 of the Ultimate Fighter at the age of 22. Riddle's power in the octagon made him stand out on the show, but it was his natural charisma and brash personality that endeared him to fans. Riddle won his last four UFC fights before two of them were overturned after he tested positive for marijuana. Riddle was then released by the UFC at the age of 27. He would retire from MMA altogether a year later thanks to a rash of untimely injuries, struggles with making the 50-pound weight cut to 170 pounds, and a lack of income that came with not being able to fight.

Everything that drove him out of MMA helped push him into what's become a much happier role in the world of professional wrestling.

"I love fighting, but you would train all the time, so I'm working all the time but I'm not getting paid," Riddle said. "I'm not going to shows. I'm not interacting with fans. I'm not doing anything that you think you'd be doing. With wrestling I'm working all the time, I'm wrestling all the time, I'm performing all the time, and I'm making money all the time. I'm not saying the paydays in the UFC weren't a little bigger, but you only got them two times, maybe three times a year, and that's if you were healthy. I'm wrestling 12 times this weekend and I have three more matches the following week. It's not slowing down, it just keeps going."

Riddle, who was a wrestling fan long before he discovered MMA, made the decision to pursue his first love after his MMA career was over. To no one's surprise, Riddle was a natural in the ring from Day 1, but it's everything else that comes with professional wrestling that was a steep learning curve for Riddle.

"When I made the career choice, my first thought was, 'Oh s---, I got into UFC after a couple months of jiu-jitsu and MMA training, I'll definitely be in the WWE in a couple weeks,'" Riddle reflected. "It wasn't a knock on pro wrestling, that was just my attitude.

"When I started doing pro wrestling, it wasn't the physical aspect doing the moves or taking the moves that was hard, it was interacting with the crowd, body movement, selling, getting that emotional attachment with people so they're invested in a match. That was the hard part. Wrestling is one of the hardest things and it has nothing to do with the extremely hard physical part of it. It has to do with the psychological part of it."

Riddle paid his dues, going to every wrestling seminar he could find while training at the Monster Factory, CZW, and the Ring of Honor dojo. Riddle started getting booked across the indies as promoters were interested in using his UFC background to their advantage. But Riddle didn't want to be labeled as a UFC reject.

"When I first started wrestling I didn't even want people to know I was in the UFC," Riddle said. "[People] were like, 'That doesn't make sense. You're a former UFC star and got fired, why would you pretend to be somebody else?' People didn't like me. They used to chant 'Baby Lesnar' to me and stuff like that when I first started wrestling. Indie fans are pretty ruthless if they don't like you."

Really, all Riddle needed to connect with fans was to be himself. Not the mean-muggin', straight-laced former UFC fighter people expected, but the carefree, wide-smiling, life of the party that made him a fan favorite in the first place. Riddle ditched "Deep Waters" for a more fitting persona: the "King of the Bros".

"The big thing is I just kept wrestling, kept getting better. Everything was original. It was me," Riddle said. "People can respect that. I'll be honest, I do say bro quite a bit".

The challenges of transitioning from MMA to wrestling

Riddle doesn't closely follow WWE like he once did, but he's well aware of the fact that two of the biggest matches taking place Sunday at WrestleMania involve fellow ex-UFC fighters in Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey.

"MMA and pro wrestling go hand in hand," Riddle said. "The one thing that Dana White probably hates about the UFC is that he can't make people throw fights because then he can really make some real superstars. That's why wrestling can always make a star and will always be entertaining while MMA, you gotta roll the dice."

Riddle understands the challenges of transitioning from MMA to pro wrestling better than anyone, but even he realizes Rousey is dealing with a whole other level of scrutiny. Even though Riddle hasn't caught much of Rousey's WWE run so far, he's impressed with the clips he's seen of her tossing people left and right. Riddle knows Rousey will excel between the ropes, but like with his own transition, it's everything else that will take time.

"I see [character work] being the most difficult part right now, because she can do everything physically," Riddle said. "The biggest thing is getting a character over and not forcing it. I don't think she's being forced, but at the same time she's gotta be organically entertaining and that's not an easy thing for anybody to do. Because she's Ronda Rousey and she's under a microscope, it's gonna be even harder for her. Even for me, and I was not even on the [same] scale. If there's one thing with wrestling, you gotta be organic or you have to be the greatest actor in the world. She has to be herself and connect with people."

"MMA and pro wrestling go hand in hand," Riddle said. "The one thing that Dana White probably hates about the UFC is that he can't make people throw fights because then he can really make some real superstars. That's why wrestling can always make a star and will always be entertaining while MMA, you gotta roll the dice." Matthew Riddle

Riddle, at 32 and just entering the prime of his career, is the kind of star any major promotion would kill for. But to the surprise of many within the wrestling industry, Riddle still hasn't signed with New Japan Pro Wrestling or WWE.

Riddle's ties with WWE go back to a tryout he had with the company in 2015. Triple H answered a question raised by Wrestling Observer's Dave Meltzer about the possibility of Riddle joining WWE during the media call for NXT Takeover: San Antonio in January of last year. Triple H admitted he, "saw his talent" during the tryout, but added, "you gotta go through a time where you prove yourself. At that point in time he was just promise". In New Japan's case, Riddle was close to competing in NJPW's World Tag League in November before the agreement fell through at the last second.

Riddle knows signing with one of those companies would be the next big step in his career, but he also isn't ready to give up what he's worked so hard to create in his successful 3.5-year start in professional wrestling.

And with the reach of independent promotions like EVOLVE, Progress and others that Riddle is competing for this weekend in New Orleans being as wide as they've ever been, he's in no rush to force anything.

"Right now I think we're at a time where we don't need one main company to be our backer," Riddle said. "I do know if I was at a bigger company I would be seen by more people, but at the same time would they present me the way I want to be seen? Can I be Matt Riddle? Can I be the King of the Bros? Can I be that guy, or do you want to change me? I'm not really trying to change. I like who I am. I like being me."